Mazda MX-5 Open Race 2010: the CAR Live Blog

Published: 11 February 2010

Mazda’s MX-5 was 20 years old in 2009, but the company was so busy launching the facelifted version of the Mk3 roadster that it didn’t really get a chance to celebrate the anniversary. So instead Mazda Europe is throwing its own birthday bash in 2010, to mark 20 years of the MX-5 being on sale in Europe. And just how do you celebrate in style? By selecting 140 journalists from across Europe to compete in an endurance race. CAR’s staff writer Ben Pulman (BP) and CAR contributor Ben Whitworth (BW) are both taking part and you can read their live race reports in the blog below. NB We'll post updates at the top in our Live Blog format. Start at the bottom and work your way up.

Thursday 11 February 2010

7.00pm: Goodies for you
BP Just been handed a bag by Mazda European PR director Petra – there's a jacket and a few other MX-5 goodies inside, that we'll give away to you lot next week. Dinner's about to be served and it's all over. Roger and out from Adria and Mazda's MX-5 party.

6.17pm: Ben Whitworth's race report
BW Well we didn't win, as you've heard from Ben P. We drove as hard as we could and our most sophisticated strategy, numerous confidence-boosting team talks and endless refuelling/driver-change practices came to naught. We were soundly thrashed. But despite crossing the line after four hours with just two cars behind us and the rest of the field in front of us, I can't keep from grinning like an inane fool. It was a great race, start to finish.

Despite the trecherously slippery conditions I somehow managed to keep our slithering MX-5 race car on the track – no spins or offs – and I posted laptimes a good 10 seconds quicker than yesterday's practice. Heady stuff. Once I got over my terrible nerves on the first lap and adrenaline replaced the blood in my arteries, I really began to enjoy myself. Okay, I was overtaken more than I overtook, but I had some fabulous battles with the Swiss, Turkish and Swedish cars and managed to hold them off during my stint at the wheel.

The cars were excellent too: not a single MX-5 missed a beat or suffered any mechanical mishap of failure. Beautifully balanced and forgiving, the Mazdas made me feel blindingly quick despite the stopwatch saying otherwise. Handing over the car in one piece, unmolested and intact to young Pulman after 25 laps left me with a warm feeling despite the lousy weather. And ultimately that's what counts in an endurance race – when four other drivers are counting on you to bring home the car safe and sound and you don't let them down you can't help but feel a little chuffed with yourself. Even if you do bring up the back of the field....

6.09pm: Changed, showered and sorted
BP The race results are confirmed. A slight change means that Germany finished three seconds ahead of UK car no.9, which ended in 13th place. Our second GB car came in at 27th, a lap behind the Irish, who will be doubly chuffed as the orange and green kit matches their national colours. I'm off to track down a Mazda jacket to give away in a CAR Online competition next week when I'm back in Blighty.

5.05pm: Discovered the grating noise
BP Turns out the grinding noise was the bodywork of our car rubbing against the wheel - our car slid a little on the kerbs and clipped the tyres on a chicane.

5pm: Team GB finishes in 12th and 27th  
BP
Belgium, Portugal, Hungary snatch the top three places. Our sister car climbed to 12th, and we made up two places to 27th. Haven't heard of any disqualifications but we'll see...

4.53pm: The Spin
BP
And after the good comes the bad: our car just spun on the slippery Turn 3 hairpin. A couple of cars went past, but still no idea if it cost us a few positions.

4.51pm: Nine minutes to go!
BP
Nine minutes left and our sister car has just chased down and overtaken the car in front - and it was a German car! Let's hope it was for position.

4.41pm: What's that grating noise?
BP
Keeping a close eye on our car. It went past with the faintest grating noise, and it's become louder on the last two laps. Hopefully just a bit of gravel. Our sister car is flying on 1.43's and catching people, but with the timings down we haven't a clue whether it's for a race position or not. 

4.31pm: Confusion reigns
BP
Half an hour left but I haven't a clue where we're placed: all the timing screens are off. I doubt they're broken, more Mazda keeping us all in suspense. Or trying to look after its cars.

4.16pm: A cup of tea. In Italy
BP Standing on the pits with Ben W. Who's enjoying a very English cup of tea. Ben's handover to me went smoothly, as did my change to our final driver. She's just put in a 1.51 and with a lot of the other teams needing to stop twice in the next 45 minutes (to give each driver the mandatory 25 mins in the car) we should make up some places.

4.05pm: Back to the pits
BP
Finished my stint and back in the pits. Track has a decent dry line but our car is still sliding on some corners. Did a best of 1.54 when i was running 2.08 in practice. Top five are turning in 1.45's but I'm happy with my performance in my first race. Was catching one car but cruelly had to pit as I got on his tail. It was the pink German car too!

2.39pm: Eurovision all over again
BP
The Russians have just pitted from second for their first stop. That leaves the Hungarians in first yet to come in. Ben W has just climbed in for his stint but having stopped twice we're 11 laps down and last. Hopefully as the other cars cycle through their changes we'll make up places. Our sister car is picking up the pace on the drying track and is up to 10th I'm in number 9 next so time to go get ready.

2.13pm: An F1 test driver in our midst?
BP
Leader has pitted and the latest news is their first driver is an F1 tester. Hmm. 

2.06pm: More confusion
BP
Seems my patriotic enthusiasm got the better of me - it's the Belgians in the lead and the Germans are only 10th. The leader also takes a different line to everyone through every corner so I'm watching with interest. Both our cars have pitted and we're 27th and our sisters car is 20th so we'll make up other places as others come in. Hopefully the changes we made after the warm-up haven't affected our cars.

1.45pm: First fuel stop of the day
BP
Watched the first fuel stop of the day as an opposition car leisurely filled up like it was a Sunday morning. We're about to have our first fuel and driver change, and we're pulling our car in while the Swiss have planted themselves in the gravel.

1.05pm: On yer marks...
BP
Race started. No incidents at the first corner, though there were a few very sideways moments. Car 9 has dropped to 15 and we're in 24th place, but judging by the conditions and chaos it's a brave driver who takes the first stint. The German lead car is way out in front but further back there's already been one clash at a hairpin and the result was a spin and a very sick-sounding car that's pitted with damage.

11.59am: Rubbins' racin'
BP
Had a text from CAR's Jethro Bovingdon wishing me luck and offering a few pearls of wisdom: "Remember - rubbins' racin'. Get stuck in." I'll try and remember that.

11.50am: The Germans are ready to race
BP
Just seen the German car and unfortunately it's going to be ready for the race. Bugger.

11.40am: God save the Queen
BP
The circuit's speakers have just started playing a few national anthems ahead of the finish. Thankfully God save the Queen blares out, but i think a few nations might not have their tunes here.

11.30am: In the Pits
BP
In the pits practising our driver changes when we get news that the car which qualified in first (a German car with a professional behind the wheel) has hit the wall heavily in warm-up. There's just 90 minutes till the race starts. 

9.20am: Driver briefing and nerves setting in
BP
We're at the circuit and our driver briefing is just 25 minutes away. After that there's a free practice session - it's dubbed a warm-up in the schedule, but with the rain pounding down and temperatures struggling to get above 5 degrees there'll be nothing warm about it.
 
A couple of the guys in car 9 are planning to go out and get a few more laps in, but rather than risk the car we're staying put. Instead we're going to practise our pit stops in full race regalia - saving a couple of seconds by pre-loosening our belts and practising with the person we're handing over to could save us a few vital seconds that would take an age to make back up on the track.
 
The race starts at 1pm (midday UK time) but between pracatice and the green light there's a very large lunch scheduled. I think I'll be going light on that, not because I won't be hungry, but because I'm sure the butterflies will be fluttering away in my belly.
 
And the race? If it's dry enough then it'll be a rolling start, so 29 cars (complete with cold brakes and many hot-headed drivers) wil be piling into a corner that's currently covered in puddles. I'll have my camera to hand.


BW I am about to head out onto an unknown circuit in a car I have never driven. It’s just above freezing and the constant drizzle has turned to a wind-blown sleet. The first drivers to return from their initial exploratory laps stumble out of the car wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the appallingly slippery and treacherous conditions.

I have terrible butterflies in my stomach, my mouth is dry, I want to be sick and my brain seems unable to think of anything usefully cogent. This is not what I was expecting when Mazda asked my along for a jaunt to Venice to race a bunch of MX-5s in celebration of the car’s 20thanniversary. Not at all.

I get strapped in, and head out. The track is so slippery that it may as well have been covered in oil. The slightest touch of the throttle instantly results in the back-end moving around all over the shop. I try to remember if my life assurance policy is up to date…

I have one or two rather large moments on my first lap – broadside slides that have me frantically flailing at the wheel to get the car straight again – and I quickly realise that to be fast here means to be slow. Get all the braking and downshifts done in a straight line, turn in late, tiptoe around the corners and get on the power slowly once the steering wheel is straight.

Touch the throttle with just one degree of lock on, and you’ll end up in a scenery-car interface – as another of our team drivers discovered after stacking the car in the barriers. Ouch…

The track conditions maybe atrocious but the MX-5 is the perfect steer. It really works with me on the track – it’s so crisp and responsive that I can drag it back from sideways disaster with relative ease. I’m pathetically grateful for its ability to flatter my driving.

I somehow complete five laps without wrapping the car – this despite the best efforts of some of my other European media colleagues trying to punt me off the track, not to mention my winning combination of paralysing nerves and distinct lack of skill.

I hand the car back in one piece to the next driver and feel all warm and fuzzy despite the arctic conditions. Box ticked, no drama, mental pat on back.

My second test stint was much better. I now have a vague recollection of what lies beyond the next corner, I ignore the sideways showboaters parading for their cameras and concentrate on my lines. Compared to the others in the team, I’m stupefying slow, but at least my time laps are consistent – important in an endurance race.

Back in the pits I get the chipper feeling again. Until I hear it’s forecast to snow tomorrow…

>> Click 'Next' below to read page 2 for Wednesday 10 February reports

Wednesday 10 February 2010

7.27pm: It's the Ben Whitworth show
BW
I've not been online as much as phone-bill-accruing Ben Pulman – so here's a review of my day behind the Mazda racer's wheel. Rewind to earlier on. I am about to head out onto an unknown circuit in a car I have never driven. It’s just above freezing and the constant drizzle has turned to a wind-blown sleet. The first drivers to return from their initial exploratory laps stumble out of the car wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the appallingly slippery and treacherous conditions.

I have terrible butterflies in my stomach, my mouth is dry, I want to be sick and my brain seems unable to think of anything usefully cogent. This is not what I was expecting when Mazda asked my along for a jaunt to Venice to race a bunch of MX-5s in celebration of the car’s 20thanniversary. Not at all.

I get strapped in, and head out. The track is so slippery that it may as well have been covered in oil. The slightest touch of the throttle instantly results in the back-end moving around all over the shop. I try to remember if my life assurance policy is up to date…

I have one or two rather large moments on my first lap – broadside slides that have me frantically flailing at the wheel to get the car straight again – and I quickly realise that to be fast here means to be slow. Get all the braking and downshifts done in a straight line, turn in late, tiptoe around the corners and get on the power slowly once the steering wheel is straight.

Touch the throttle with just one degree of lock on, and you’ll end up in a scenery-car interface – as another of our team drivers discovered after stacking the car in the barriers. Ouch…

The track conditions may be atrocious but the MX-5 is the perfect steer. It really works with me on the track – it’s so crisp and responsive that I can drag it back from sideways disaster with relative ease. I’m pathetically grateful for its ability to flatter my driving.

I somehow complete five laps without wrapping the car – this despite the best efforts of some of my other European media colleagues trying to punt me off the track, not to mention my winning combination of paralysing nerves and distinct lack of skill.

I hand the car back in one piece to the next driver and feel all warm and fuzzy despite the arctic conditions. Box ticked, no drama, mental pat on back.

My second test stint was much better. I now have a vague recollection of what lies beyond the next corner, I ignore the sideways showboaters parading for their cameras and concentrate on my lines. Compared to the others in the team, I’m stupefying slow, but at least my time laps are consistent – important in an endurance race. Back in the pits I get the chipper feeling again. Until I hear it’s forecast to snow tomorrow…

4.47pm: Grid riddance
BP
We're 18th, so with car 9's penalty we're right behind them on the grid for tommorrow's race. That's us done for today. The weather is only expected to get worse tomorrow. Now where were those snow chains?

4.30pm: The other Brits qualify in sixth
BP
Our sister car has qualified 6th, and that's after another car pulled right out in front of him from the pits, just as he was starting his hot lap. Cheers!

4.20pm: This is where we qualify
BP
Superpole just started. There are groups of five, with each car set off at 15-second intervals. The fastest go first, including a Porsche Supercup driver. Car 9 is out in the second group and we're in the fourth.

3.45pm: The second practice session reviewed
BP Second practice is over and both cars have survived. Everyone in car no. 9 managed their allotted five laps so no more penalties for them, and all of us in number 10 got round ok too. Track was wetter than this morning, and when you head out on track you're dropped into the middle of people already on hot laps, readying to take whatever line they can to get past, even if it means some *VERY* late braking and forcing you wide. Guess I'll have to toughen up for the race. It's qualifying next, run in a Superpole format with one driver from each car having just one hot lap to set a time. That sets your grid position, and the same driver has to start the race.... So far the times we've all set count for nothing official. Thankfully I won't be doing Superpole – we're leaving that to someone with Britcar 24hr experience – so I'm now free to offer advice to him for the next hour before he starts. 

2.10pm: Whoops – they've knackered the steering
BP
Our sister car is back out on track, but the steering has seen better days. If you want to go straight, you need to apply half a turn of lock. Oh, and the rain is coming down harder than ever...

1.45pm: Second practice session
BP
The second practice session just started and sister car no.9 is still not repaired. They are already looking at a 10-place grid penalty from the first session as all their drivers didn't complete the compulsory five laps each. And if their car isn't fixed in time for this practice then they won't all complete their five mandatory laps in this session. Uh-oh.

1.20pm: More (chaotic) practice
BP Well, that was exciting. Our first practice session was wet (very wet) so all cars ran rain tyres and we've softened the car up in the hope of giving it a little extra progression. With all 29 cars on track it's very busy, and chaotic. Bar the odd F3000 ringer in one or two teams, no one knows the track so everyone is taking different lines, trying to figure out where the track goes, where the grip is, whether they can take any kerb. Then you've got to pick your braking points, which change with each lap as you get more confident, and more often than not you'll end up off line on the next lap as you mingle with traffic. Too much throttle out of any corner will see the car sliding, and while it would be great to get some sideways practice in (I need it), it's not quick. Nor is spinnng which I managed once coming out of a tight hairpin. But everyone span, including our sister car which ended up in the barrier and is currently in the pits with the front end off, and the rear end being banged into shape with a hammer. Practice session number two is about to start so time to get back out there. We should have some pictures for you after then as well, once everything has calmed down a bit.

12.30pm: End of practice
BP
Practice over and i've survived. Span once coming out of a tight hairpin after getting on the power early but stayed on the track. Avoided all the spinners around me, but I wasn't that fast. The track is very greasy but not consistent. Chaos as everyone tries to pick their racing line. More thoughts to come after lunch.

11.10am: The MX-5 as spinning top
BP
Wandered into the pit lane just in time to watch our sister car spin. It looks – and sounds – like contact with the barrier. Car being towed by a tractor and the driver is safely out. Practice over for them, and the gloomy prospect of a 10-place grid penalty.

11am: The rubber argument
BP
Just had the car back in to tweak the set up – it was set up for dry weather and slicks. The track is very slippy and unless you're braking or accelerating in a straight line then the chances are you'll spin. Good to know before I get out there. We might be out of communication for a while as I try and prepare.

10.45am: A phantom third Brit-spec MX-5
BP
Just spied a third RHD car in UK colours – turns out it's the wheels of choice for Mazda's Japanese engineers.

10.40am: First practice
BP
First practice about to start. We haven't walked the track, we haven't even been driven round it. And 30 cars are about to head out on track. Did I mention that it's raining?

10.15am: My eyes
BP
Spent 10 minutes struggling with my new contact lenses in the pits. Note to self: must get my eyes lasered.

10am: Lost in translation
BP
Just out of the driver briefing, which wasn't simple. All in Italian. Think it's a case of Lost In Translation thanks to a particularly ineffective interpretation.

9.05am: Ze pesky Germans
BP Just back in our pit garage and spotted the checklist on our race car. It’s all in German. Us, put at a disadvantage? No way! At least the organisers have been gracious enough to let us Brits use RHD cars while everyone else has LHD.


8.55am: Spying on the competition
BP Good news! I’ve just snuck into the Germans’ pit garage and not only do they only seem to have two cars rather than three, but one of them has been painted by a competition winner. That means it’s got a map of the world on the nose, and the rear end of the little roadster is pink. Poor buggers.


8.30am: Meeting the men from Mazda
BP Just met a couple of Mazda engineers who worked on the 787B Le Mans car. Since then they’ve been involved in all things MX-5 (and other Mazda racing activities) and they’re here this week to compete in a Mazda Europe car. Sounds like they should be pretty quick.


7.25am: Bus ride
BP Zzzzzz. I’ve got an hour on the bus ahead of me.


7.00am: Breakfast
BP
Apparently it’s the most important meal of the day, so time to pack away a cooked breakfast and a Continental breakfast. I’ll worry about cutting the kilos tomorrow morning before the race.

>> Click 'Next' below to read page 3 for Tuesday 9 February reports

Tuesday 9 February 2010

11.57pm: Midnight musings
BP Just back to the hotel having been to the race track to see the car, have our first driver briefing, and make sure all the kit fits. My first thought? Who decided to book a hotel over an hour away from the circuit – it’s going to be a boring commute every morning and evening.

Apart from that everything has gone smoothly. Not all of you may like our race overalls – they’re orange and green in homage to the 1991 Le Mans-winning Mazda 787B – but when everyone else is wearing the same thing you don’t feel quite so stupid. (Yes, we checked that all the other garages had the same day-glow outfits – it wasn’t a trick being played on the Brits).

My suit fits, though to get the length it has space for a little extra girth around the middle so I’ll have to tuck it in tight. My boots were too big and my gloves too small, so both items were exchanged, but there’s so much gear (helmet, fireproof undergarments, jackets) that I’ve no idea how I’m going to get it all home.

Anyone fancy a jacket though? I’ll see if I can convince Mazda to let us give one away on the website.

Anyway, the car. It’s a mean little beast. It’s predominantly black, with a bit of dark blue and only a smattering of Union Jacks so it doesn’t look too like Austin Power’s Shaguar. Lowered, with slick tyres, decals, a rear wing and a very cool diffuser complete with centre-exit exhausts it looks the business.

We all clambered inside to make sure we fitted, and I reckon I might have a bit of a problem. The carbon bucket seat means you sit nice and low, but I’m still lanky enough that my head pokes out quite high. With a fat roll cage around me (and a helmet on) my head’s pushed forward and inboard, and with all the stickers on the windscreen I’ve only got a tiny pillarbox through which to view the track.

The carbon door cards also mean we can’t adjust the wing mirrors, and with the hefty cage blocking out a lot of rear and side visibility I reckon there might be a bit of contact over the coming days.

I also felt rather nervous sitting inside with my helmet on. Even then all I could hear was myself breathing, and I had the rather scary realisation that for nearly an hour on Thursday (plus the practice sessions) I’ll be out there on my own, with no radio or instructor, and with 28 others cars who all want to get the better of me. Scared? Yes.

Other bits and pieces to report? Our car is number 10, and our sister car is number 9, yet somehow we’ve ended up with pit boards marked 1 and 2. It’s nothing a little masking tape and markers pens couldn’t sort out, and hopefully the race officials won’t frown upon it. We also found a white marker pen perfect for drawing on our black MX-5, but our team boss frowned upon the idea of /How’s my driving?’ and /Eat dust, Fritz/ scrawled across the Mazda’s pert rear. Shame.

Right, bedtime.

2.37pm: The idea behind the race
BP
I know Mazda’s aim for the MX-5 Open Race 2010 is to celebrate 20 years of its evergreen sports car, but the UK mob of journos taking part has an altogether different plan: to win. There are 21 other countries taking part and we want to beat them all.

Excuse number one is that some countries have more teams than we do. The allocation of cars is supposedly dependent on how big your home market is for MX-5s, and as the UK buys more MX-5s than anywhere else in Europe, we’ve end up with two cars and thus two teams. Of course that means we have an advantage over most of the other nations, but the Germans have wangled three cars! There’s suspicion it’s got something to do with Mazda Europe’s HQ being based in Deutschland – I wouldn’t be surprised to find their towels on the podium already.

We don’t get to see the cars until tomorrow but we’ve already been sent a tantalising picture (see above right) and been given the spec of our race cars. It’s not just a simple case of slapping on a new paintjob and some stickers – all the unnecessary items have been removed. Foglights, sound systems, insulation and airbags have all gone, and the folding soft top and road car’s roll bars have been junked too – in their place comes an FIA-spec roll cage. Both seats have are ditched, replaced by just one FIA-compliant carbonfibre bucket, complete with a six-point harness that’s bound to be a pain come pitstop time. A quick release steering wheel, fire extinguisher and lap timer complete the interior makeover.

Since we received the teaser image Mazda has also upped the spec on the MX-5 racers. As well as the roll cage and carbon seat not present in the picture, all racers now also get an new aero kit with a rear wing, rear diffuser and extra intakes to help cool the brakes. The other external difference is the centre-exit twin exhaust: new from the cat back, these stainless steel pipes (along with a new ECU) should help liberate a little extra power.

There are new springs and dampers to lower the car too, 17-inch wheels with slick tyres – there are rain tyres too, and snow is forecast for the race on Thursday – and uprated brake pads with bigger discs up front. There’s also a stronger clutch, extra cooling for the diff and gearbox, plus all the fluids have been swapped for race-spec items.

And with all the cars perfectly prepared, we have to be too: to make sure we don’t look like a bunch of misfits (as motoring journalists tend to do) we’ve all got matching team outfits. Unfortunately the suit, fireproof undies, helmet, gloves and boots had to be ordered through Mazda Europe, meaning that we won’t actually get our race gear until we get to the circuit tonight for our first briefing. At 6ft 5in, I’m seriously expecting to end with kit that doesn’t fit, and just 12 hours before I’m supposed to climb into the race car and compete.

Finally, the circuit. Hopeful of some hot weather – or at least a dry race – Mazda picked the Adria International Raceway just outside Venice, Italy. None of us has ever seen it before (advantage to the Italians) so a few of the team have dug out old PS2s and scrounged copies of TOCA Race Driver 2 – it’s in the DTM section if you want to have a go – but as the youngest member of the team I’m far too old for video games. Instead my knowledge of the 2.7km circuit and its 14 corners is limited to watching a few videos on YouTube. Tomorrow should be interesting.

Did I mention I’ve never raced before?

By Ben Pulman

CAR's editor-at-large, co-ordinator, tallboy

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